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Secretary of state urges caution

“Instead of trying to hack the elections, they’ve tried to hack our minds.”

That’s what Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said this week about “foreign adversaries,” particularly those from Russia, trying to interfere in U.S. elections.

They’re particularly active during presidential elections as we saw in 2016.

LaRose, a Republican, said they’re continuing.

“The very institution of democracy is under attack,” he said.

Russia uses social media to alter images to confuse voters or set up protest rallies on Facebook to incite people.

“They’re trying to change our perceptions of elections to cause us to choose to disenfranchise ourselves in some cases,” LaRose said.

The overwhelming majority of rallies are legitimate, but some are not.

While targeting people on social media is a large part of foreign attempts to disrupt the election, the big goal is to convince mainstream media from reporting false information, LaRose said.

In a 24-hour news cycle with journalists wanting to be first, they can sometimes be fooled into reporting something not legitimate.

During his discussion in Youngstown, LaRose said, “Don’t think that somebody wouldn’t target us because we’re a smaller market or a smaller area of the state of Ohio or whatever else. Ohio is on the radar. I’m here to tell you that our foreign adversaries know that Ohio plays a large role in the U.S. election., so we all need to be on guard.”

In my nearly 32 years of news reporting, I’m fairly sure I haven’t been contacted by a Russian propaganda specialist to write about something fake. But there have certainly been many times when people have called in with a “tip” that ended up being fake.

LaRose said the state’s voting machines are not connected to the internet, so someone with a computer isn’t going to be able to change the outcome of the election.

That gets back to the quote at the top of the column about people trying “to hack our minds.”

People can shout “fake news” all they want about mainstream media. The reality is there are trusted news outlets, and there are those with bias.

If you get your news from a person giving a wild opinion on a talk show — even if it’s on a legitimate television or radio station or in a newspaper — you do so at your own risk.

If you believe almost everything you read on social media, well, I’m surprised you made it this far into my column.

Just because you can point to something on a website doesn’t make it accurate.

During a question-and-answer session with the media, LaRose said voting twice in an election is extremely rare.

This prompted me to ask him about Hillary O’Connor Mueri of Painesville, the Democratic nominee in the 14th Congressional District. The district includes communities in Trumbull County.

The Ohio Republican Party filed a complaint Feb. 13 with the attorney general’s office claiming she illegally voted in the 2008 presidential primary by casting ballots in both Ohio and California.

LaRose told cleveland.com at the time the case appeared to be “the exact type of violation I would refer to the attorney general for investigation. You can’t vote twice in the same election.”

But it turns out O’Connor Mueri didn’t vote twice.

The Lake County Board of Elections told cleveland.com it mailed an absentee ballot to O’Connor Mueri, but she never returned it or voted in Ohio. The board had a policy at the time that granted voter history credit to those who applied to cast absentee ballots, according to the article.

I asked LaRose if he had any regrets about his comments.

He said: “Not really. What I’ll say is when presented with a fact pattern that showed that there may be a problem, my response was that it should be referred for further investigation. That’s why we have investigations.”

LaRose added: “When there’s credible evidence — and in this case, there’s no doubt there was credible evidence presented that there could be fraud occurring — the appropriate body to refer that to is the attorney general, the county prosecutor, to further investigate it. So I will stand by that. If you showed me evidence right now there was potential fraud occurring, my response would be the same.”

LaRose also wouldn’t definitively say O’Connor Mueri didn’t vote twice, but if she did, she couldn’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired.

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